Sorry, Not Sorry: A Little Data Experiment in Tracking Personal Apologies

The Experiment

Beyond the ubiquitous #SorryNotSorry (now available as footwear) the apology has recently gained attention following this semi-controversial Pantene ad. The ad challenges women to not over apologize (especially at work) and inspired a flurry of like-minded articles.

The sorry — which Jessica Bennett brilliantly referred to as a “a tyrannical lady-crutch” — is a way to casually diffuse a situation, cover your politeness bases, and generally look like the nice girl. As a woman just entering the workforce in a post-Lean In* world, it’s hard not to wonder if my apologizing could be hurting me professionally or at the very least undermining the sincerity of my real apologies.

I don’t think of myself as an over-apologizer, but since this blog is called Truth in Data, let’s have the data decide. So for this second little data experiment I tracked all the apologies I made for five days. I wanted to find out who I apologize to, why I apologize, and how much I mean it. I kept track of the gender of who I apologized to, my relationship to them, the intensity of the apology. 

The Visualization

I started out by mapping the data in a similar way to my Facebook data, with an emphasis on time. This format (fig. 1) turned out to be a good way to see the data quickly, but time itself wasn’t particularly interesting for my apologies. The data followed a pretty predictable pattern of work apologies (9-5ish) and friends in the evenings. This format didn’t illustrate the intensity of the apologies, so I came up with a second graph (fig. 2) to give a weight to them. As you can see, only three apologies made it into the inner circle of a real apology. The gender data is largely obscured in this version, so I decided to keep both versions.

The Results

  • Nearly ⅔ of all my apologies were to women. According to a few studies this could be a good thing, since women are more likely to appreciate the extra apology.

  • Since I was a little under the weather during my test period (and I’m always a little clumsy) 1/4 of my apologies were related to some kind of bodily rudeness e.g. coughing, bumping into someone.

  • My biggest sorry of the week was my only apology to a family member. This is partially because I live 1,200 miles from my family and partially a reminder that I should probably just call more. Sorry, parents!

  • I didn’t apologize to a single man outside of work. Sorry, boys. This one surprised me.

  • I was much more likely to apologize multiple times to friends, usually just for dramatic effect.

The Conclusion

Much like the absent-minded Facebooking I did in my last Little Data post, I found that I often apologized without thinking. I auto-apologized for other people running into me, for coughing, and for sometimes no reason at all. Having to write down a cause for each and every apology forced me to take a good hard look at why exactly I was apologizing.

The useless apologies start piling up and clouding the two apologies I really meant over the five days. I won’t apologize for my over-apologies, but I do want my sorrys to mean more in the future.

Thanks to this little experiment I’ll be apologizing more for the things that matter and less for the things that clearly don’t.

*I challenge to you try to graduate from a women’s college in 2014 and not receive multiple copies of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In for Graduates.